He puffed on the Monte Cristo in his right hand, sipped Cognac with his left and regaled a table of cronies and hangers-on with jokes and florid commentary.
It was vintage Buddy Cianci, perched at an outdoor table on a balmy evening at the Capital Grille late last Tuesday night, entertaining the crowd long after the thick sirloins and fancy wines had been devoured.
The smallest state’s biggest political personality is at it again, holding Providence and the rest of Rhode Island on the edge of its collective seat as he again plays Hamlet on the Woonasquatucket River. Will he or won’t he try to make an unprecedented third comeback and run again for mayor of the capital city, a post he held and a role he played for a record 21 years?
Under state election law, Cianci has until Wednesday afternoon (June 25) to file the required campaign papers at Providence City Hall, a building he once ruled as a barony.
As he drew on his cigar, Cianci insisted that he hasn’t made up his mind. And he told two reporters that another campaign would not be swaddled in nostalgia or predicated upon vindication. A mayoral campaign is "about tomorrow, not yesterday," he said.
So far six candidates –five Democrats and a Republican – have announced they are serious candidates. (There is a well-done roundup of the field in the current Providence Phoenix, written by editor Phil Eil). Only one of them, City Council President Mike Solomon, a Democrat, has ever been elected to anything. Against the backdrop of an untested field, Cianci has once again sucked the oxygen from the campaign merely by talking about a possible run.
At 73, Cianci, who has been receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a cancer that was discovered in January, may be difficult to envision as the 21st Century mayor Providence needs and yearns for. Twice convicted of felonies that drove him from office in disgrace, first in 1984 and again in 2002, his famously corrupt administrations are viewed by supporters through the prism of the past. He is seen by these voters as a "can do" mayor who did a better job raising the city’s spirits and bringing business to the capital city than his predecessors.
To foes, it is ludicrous that he is even seen as a serious candidate; another Cianci victory would attract national media coverage of the kind that Rhode Island’s struggling economy could well do without. And how would a third Cianci term be any different than his first two?
Whatever Cianci decides, he wins either way. As he has in the past, he will hold his decision until the last-minute, announcing it on his afternoon show on WPRO radio, where he is the star attraction in a lineup of mediocre talk show gabbers. Even if he decides against a race, he will inevitably command high ratings as the state tunes in to await his decision. With Cianci, there is always the possibility that the mayoral candidacy talk was always an elaborate ruse for the limelight and swelled ratings.
Yet Cianci’s supporters, including former mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., insist the mayoral interest is real and not a fig leaf for boosting his radio show. One element is undeniably true: This is Cianci’s last shot at City Hall. He will be 77 at the next mayor election in 2018. And he probably isn’t viable against an incumbent who does a decent job in office. Cianci needs a multi-candidate election with a split vote to win. Which is why this Last Hurrah appeals to him, say his confidantes.
It also may be Cianci's last chance at obtaining his juicy city pension. If elected as mayor, it would be difficult to assert that Cianci doesn't deserve his pension under the `honorable service' provision. If voters are fine with him serving as mayor, why wouldn't the pension board and the courts?
New England’s second largest city is a much different place than it was during Cianci’s last election win, in 1998. And it is a different country from his first campaign, in 1974, when he ran as a Republican and smashed a divided, rust-covered Democratic Party urban machine that had controlled the city for more than a generation.
Cianci in 1975 became the city’s first Italian-American mayor in a Providence that was still populated mostly with white ethnic, Roman Catholic enclaves and a wealthy East Side near Brown University that was home to a significant Jewish and Protestant population.
That Providence is a memory. The current mayor, Angel Taveras, is the first mayor of Latino ancestry. He is now running for governor. The East Side no longer has much of a Republican Party; most voters in the three East Side wards are unaffiliated or Democrats and vote overwhelmingly in Democratic primaries.
While the East Side is still arguably the most livable urban neighborhood between Beacon Hill and Georgetown, the recession has taken its toll, especially in housing foreclosures, on the neighborhoods of the West Side and South Side that were on their way back until the crash.
As is the case with many former industrial cities in the northeast, Providence has evolved into a city of wealthy people and poor people, with a withering middle class. The neighborhoods that once hosted blue-collar factory workers are increasingly now filled with a mix of Latino immigrants and young artiste types, lured by cheap rents and the city’s colleges and a vibrant music, food and arts scene.
Enclaves on the South Side that were once African-American neighborhoods now are majority Latino redoubts.
Solomon, who has the biggest campaign kitty, is the leader in the club house. Solomon has the Democratic endorsement, and boasts the backing of what some see as the archaic remains of the Democratic Party. He would be hurt the most by a Cianci entrance. That’s because Cianci appeals to what is left of the elderly Italian-American vote in neighborhoods where Solomon is well-liked, such as Elmhurst, Fruit Hill and a slice of Mount Pleasant and hat is left of Italian-American Silver Lake.
A Cianci campaign would inevitably turn negative very quickly, with his opponents hammering away at the corruption that encircled both of his reigns in City Hall. Don’t be surprised to see chants of "let’s not go back" punctuated by television ads and direct mail depicting Cianci in federal court and in an orange jumpsuit. The famous FBI video of Frank Corrente, Cianci’s top aide, taking a $1,000 bribe from a federal informant, will be a preview of coming attractions if he says yes Wednesday.
Cianci also has a decision to make about whether to run in the crowded Democratic primary or opt to compete as an independent, the path that fueled his 1990 victory when he captured a bit more than a third of the vote running against the late Frederick Lippitt and Democrat Andrew Annaldo.
He could win a six-way primary with as little as 26 or 30 percent of the ballots cast. Or he could make the quest as independent, ensuring that he gets to November, watching as the Democrats chew each other up in a messy primary campaign. That also might allow him to peel off support and campaign staffers from the losing campaigns.
Cianci won't need as much campaign cash as other candidates, because his name recognition in the city dwarfs any of the putative aspirants.
Cianci has outlived or outmaneuvered many of his biggest critics. Dennis Aiken, the FBI agent who spearheaded the Plunder Dome probe than led to the federal corruption charges that evicted Cianci from office in 2002, has retired.
The Providence Journal, which in 1990 hammered away at Cianci in over-the top campaign coverage and editorials, and has recently run scathing editorials at the mere mention of Cianci, is no longer nearly the force it once was in Rhode Island politics. The state’s largest newspaper has been bleeding readers and advertisers for years and is now on the block for a fire sale price.
With a weak field, no apparent front-runner and almost three months until primary day, only a political naïf would claim that Cianci can’t win. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American life. He never met Buddy Cianci.
Cianci supporters say he deeply wants to run. "I think he does it, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it," says Paolino.
Yet at the Capital Grille last Tuesday, Cianci was both advertising a candiacy and arguing with himself. He has a job that pays a handsome six-figure salary for about four hours of work a day. "Do I want to give that up?" he said, before shooing the reporters away, drawing on his cigar and launching yet another tale of times past and, perhaps, future.